The bonds that members of the military make with their comrades during their service are unlike any other. There’s a special kind of trust and faith that you have in a person that you would risk your life for and know would do the same for you. Fighter pilots are a breed of service member that understand this bond well. In aerial combat, your wingman is someone you have to trust completely and be willing to do anything for.
These fighter pilots demonstrated this commitment with unwavering loyalty and bravery.
On September 15, 1952, Air Force Capt. James Risner was escorting a flight of F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers on an attack on a chemical plant along the Yalu River. Flying his F-86 Sabre fighter jet, Risner engaged an attacking enemy MiG and chased it at nearly supersonic speed at ground level. Risner pursued the MiG across the Yalu River and into Chinese airspace. He landed several solid hits on the MiG with his .50-caliber machine guns which shot off the enemy jet’s canopy and set it on fire. Risner chased the MiG over a Chinese air base where it crashed into more MiGs parked on the ground. Throughout this engagement, Risner’s wingman, 1st Lt. Joseph Logan, was flying in pursuit and covering Risner’s six.
Risner poses in front of an F-86 (Photo by the United States Air Force)
As the flight headed for home, Logan’s Sabre was hit by enemy flak—fuel and hydraulic fluid gushed out of the wounded jet’s belly. Logan had only five minutes of fuel left; not enough to get him out of enemy territory. Refusing to abandon his wingman, Risner told Logan to shut his engine down and lined up behind him. He skillfully inched the upper lip of his Sabre’s air intake toward the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre until they made contact. Despite fuel and hydraulic fluid obscuring his canopy and turbulence constantly separating the two aircraft, Risner persisted in his endeavor to push his wingman to safety.
After almost 60 miles of pushing, the two planes were finally over the ocean and in range of rescue swimmers. Logan called out to Risner, “I’ll see you at base tonight,” and bailed out of his stricken aircraft. Despite being a strong swimmer, Logan became tangled in his parachute shroud lines and tragically drowned off the coast of Cho Do Island. Having burned extra fuel to push his wingman, Risner’s Sabre ran out of fuel and he glided to a dead-stick landing at Kimpo Air Base. Over a decade later during the Vietnam War, two Air Force fighter jet crews would find themselves in a similar situation to Risner and Logan.
In 1967, Capt. Bob Pardo with Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Steve Wayne and his wingman Capt. Earl Aman and his Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Robert Houghton flew F-4 Phantom II fighter jets from Ubon Air Base in Thailand. On March 10, they were a part of a bombing run on a steel mill just north of Hanoi in North Vietnam. Heavy anti-aircraft fire cut through the skies, damaging both Phantom IIs. Aman and Houghton’s plane took a direct hit to the fuel tank and quickly lost most of their precious fuel. Without the range needed to make it to the KC-135 refueling tanker over Laos, Aman and Houghton would have to bail out over the unfriendly skies of North Vietnam. To prevent this, Pardo decided to push the stricken plane.
First, he had Aman jettison his drag chute so that he could insert his fighter’s nose into the drag chute compartment, much like Risner did with the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre. However, the aerodynamic properties of the two aircraft created a suction that threatened to pull Pardo and Wayne up into Aman and Houghton’s plane. Pardo then had the idea to push the Phantom II from its tailhook. Originally designed for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the F-4 Phantom II was equipped with a tailhook to snag arresting cables and land on aircraft carriers.
An F-4 Phantom II’s drag chute in its compartment (Photo by David Wallace, Jr.)
With the tailhook lowered, it provided about 4 feet of standoff distance between the two planes—just enough to prevent the deadly aerodynamic interference. Pardo then maneuvered his F-4 under and behind Aman’s until the tailhook was resting on the front of his windscreen. Aman then shut down his engines as Pardo pushed to keep his wingman airborne. The stunt worked to slow the rate of descent of Aman and Houghton’s aircraft. However, every 15 to 30 seconds, the tailhook would slide off of the windscreen and Pardo would have to line back up and re-establish connection.
Pardo and Wayne were also struggling with a fire in their port-side engine, eventually having to shut it down. After 88 miles of pushing, both aircraft reached Laotian airspace at an altitude of just 6,000 feet.
Aman and Houghton ejected safely, but Pardo and Wayne had burned so much fuel that they were forced to eject just ahead of them. All but Wayne had to evade enemy forces on the ground before they were located by friendly forces and rescued. Pardo and Wayne were initially reprimanded for losing their aircraft and putting their own lives in danger. It wasn’t until 1989 that the military re-examined “Pardo’s Push”, as it came to be known, and awarded the Silver Star to both Pardo and Wayne.
Both Risner and Pardo persisted in their commitment to their comrades in arms. During the Vietnam War, Risner was shot down over North Vietnam and was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for seven years, four months, and 27 days. During this time, he and Navy Commander James Stockdale led the American resistance in the prison and organized the other POWs to present maximum resistance to their captors.
Risner answers questions at a press conference after he is released from captivity. (Photo by the United States Air Force)
After retiring from the Air Force, Pardo learned that Aman had developed Lou Gehrig’s disease and lost both his voice and mobility. He created the Earl Aman Foundation to raise money and buy his wingman a voice synthesizer, a motorized wheelchair, and a computer. The two men remained close friends until Aman’s death in 1998.
The bonds formed by these airmen in the crucible of aerial combat manifested in their refusal to abandon their wingmen and willingness to risk life and limb to save them. It is a commitment that is difficult to understand for people who have not experienced it firsthand, but Risner, Wayne and Pardo’s selfless actions help to demonstrate its power and magnitude.